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Section 3: Rights and Responsibilities

Scholar, editor, and diplomat James Russell Lowell observed that Americans had wrongly convinced themselves that the U.S Constitution was a “machine that would go of itself.” As Lowell argued, neither the Constitution nor the American government could be taken for granted. A free republic only endures because citizens appreciate both the rights and the responsibilities necessary to its survival, recognizing liberties and duties. Thus, acts such as voting, paying taxes, casting educated votes, serving on juries, defending the country in the armed forces, and participating in civic organizations are all important to the continuation of the American constitutional republic.

Section 3: Rights and Responsibilities 

Study Guide

One of the most common types of constitutional amendments is the expansion of federally guaranteed suffrage, or the ability to vote in elections.

The 15th Amendment

Prohibits discrimination in voting on account of race.

Ratified by the states: 1870 

The 19th Amendment

Prohibits discrimination in voting on account of sex—meaning that men and women can vote.

Ratified by the states: 1920

The 24th Amendment

Bans poll taxes in federal elections.

Ratified by the states: 1964

The 26th Amendment 

Guarantees the right of eighteen-year-olds to vote.

Ratified by the states: 1971

"When one examines the Constitution of the United States... one is the quantity of...knowledge...and discernment that it supposes in those whom it must rule."

            -Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Citizenship brings with it many rights, but also related responsibilities. For example, serving on a jury, which enables one to ensure a fair trial for citizens, is limited to citizens. While service on a jury is often depicted as something to be dreaded, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed that service on a jury is one of the best ways to learn about how government works. Knowing how government works is also an important part of voting in federal elections, which is a right of citizenship. Finally, while not all American citizens must run for federal office, the right to do so is limited to U.S. citizens.

The Supreme Court has generally held that the protections listed in the Bill of Rights protect not just citizens, but everyone living in the United States. Thus, everyone, not just citizens, can enjoy the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petitioning the government from the First Amendment, and the right to keep and bear arms from the Second Amendment.

For roughly the first seventy years after the Constitution was ratified, it was up to state constitutions to prevent states from violating freedom of speech, religious liberty, the right to keep and bear arms, and the like. But in the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress decided to ensure states were also bound by a basic floor of rights. To do this, Congress created the Fourteenth Amendment, to apply the individual rights in the first eight amendments of the federal Bill of Rights to the states, though the states also remain free to guarantee more expansive rights in their own state constitutions.

The Pledge of Allegiance, initially written in 1892, has been changed several times in history. Someone reciting the pledge promises to show loyalty and allegiance to “the flag” and “the United States of America…”—the republic for which that flag stands.

There are several ways to become an American citizen. One can be born in the United States, or derive citizenship from one’s citizen parents. One can also be naturalized, which is the process by which an immigrant from another country pledges loyalty and allegiance to the United States.

Becoming an American citizen through naturalization entails making certain promises to the new society one is joining. Among these promises are giving up loyalty to one’s previous country, defending the Constitution and laws of the United States, obeying the laws of the United States, being loyal to the United States, and serving the country, including with military or equivalent service, if necessary.

The United States of America is sometimes described as a democracy, but unlike a direct democracy, in which voters directly voice opinions on issues and vote on policies, American citizens generally vote for representatives who then make decisions about governance. That is why America is more accurately described as a republic, a democratic republic, or a constitutional republic. There are many ways to participate in this government: one can obviously vote, but one can also join a civic group such as a political party, help with a campaign, contact one’s representative or Senator to offer an opinion on an issue, or make one’s views known, such as by writing to a newspaper to publicly oppose or support an issue, policy, or candidate. 

Americans can also serve their country by obeying the law, working in local, state or federal government, or serving in the military. 

The United States military is a volunteer force today and has largely been so for almost 5 decades. Nonetheless, the federal government still maintains the ability to draft men—regardless of citizenship status—into the armed forces in the event of military need. The registration program for this is called the Selective Service. All men must register for the selective service at age eighteen and remain registered between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Registration is required by law and civic duty, and is intended to ensure a draft would be fair.

Americans also pay their taxes, as a matter of civic duty and because it is required by both federal law and the Constitution specifically. Federal income tax returns must normally be submitted by:

 April 15.

Section 3: Rights and Responsibilities 

Flash Cards

Section 3: Rights and Responsibilities 


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Colonial Period and Independence